Second to the purchase of a firearm, ammunition is typically the biggest expenditure and most critical decision involved in owning a reliable and dependable gun. Depending upon the caliber of weapon you choose, an hour at the range can easily burn up $200 or more in ammo. At that rate, shooting enough to become skilled and to maintain that level of skill can become cost prohibitive.
And that’s just practice ammo! While low cost, budget brand ammunition can be fine for routine range shooting, it’s not what you want to bet your life on. Obviously you want something designed for high performance when it hits the target for your carry ammo, and that will cost significantly more than generic ‘range rounds’. But how much is too much, and what does one look for in carry ammo?
Fortunately, ammunition availability has improved greatly from what it was even two or three years ago. During that time it wasn’t uncommon to walk into one of the biggest gun shops in my area and see just a few boxes of ammo per caliber—not per loading, or even per brand name, but per caliber—on the shelves. I can recall onetime buying fresh .45 ACP +P, 230-gr. JHP carry ammo at $60 a box of twenty … two boxes worth. Not because I was being brand loyal, not because I’m extremely picky, and definitely not because I had an extra $120 I was dying to spend that week. I bought that ammo because they were the only two boxes of .45 +P hollowpoints I could find!
While prices are still higher than what I think they should be, at least ammo is plentiful again, and it’s not difficult to find a variety of good ammunition at reasonable prices. As to what constitutes quality in ammunition, it depends greatly on its intended use.
If you’re just heading out to the range for a day’s shooting, then Winchester’s basic, “white-box” ammo, available for less than 30¢ a cartridge, is an excellent choice. If you’re a handgun hunter spending thousands of dollars on a once-in-a-lifetime hunting trip, then Winchester’s premium grade .500 S&W Magnum ammo, at roughly $3.52 per cartridge, is a real bargain. And for defending yourself and your loved ones? How do you set that price-point?
Luckily, excellent defensive ammo can be had at a cost that won’t wreck your budget. To choose a carry round, there are two important criteria that must be considered: reliability and performance. Reliability simply means that it functions without fail in your weapon, every shot, every pull of the trigger. Feeding, firing, ejection, all have to work properly, every time. It doesn’t matter how well the round works in your buddy’s Glock 19, what’s important is how it functions in your Sig 226, and there is only one way to determine that—shooting a significant quantity of not-so-inexpensive ammunition.
Personally, I prefer two twenty-round boxes for a proof test. One failure, of any type, in forty rounds means I won’t use it for carry ammo. If I could afford a more extensive test I would do so, but that test has to be done for every brand and load under consideration. I can narrow the field down using reviews, load data, and personal knowledge, but no matter how much information I have on a cartridge, it still has to be checked out.
My on-the-job carry weapon, a Gen3 Glock 21, works well with most brands of ammo, in most bullet weights. Because I replaced the stock recoil spring with one that’s three pounds heavier, I stick with hotter loads, but regular loads function well. The only ammo that’s proven problematic in that pistol is Remington Golden Saber 185-gr. hollowpoints. If you carry a pistol, as opposed to a revolver, and you’ve shot enough ammunition through it, you’ve probably noticed the same type of idiosyncrasies yourself in your weapon. Testing the various rounds simply allow you to qualify which cartridges you can or can’t trust in your pistol.
The second criteria is performance, how the bullet does once it has left the barrel, including how it performs when it hits the target. For that we need to depend upon our research, as dependably determining bullet expansion and penetration is beyond the ability of most shooters. The ideal defensive ammo expands reliably and penetrates completely, without retaining enough velocity or energy to do much damage beyond the intended target.
Ideally, once you’ve done all of this, the result will be a list of cartridges that work perfectly in your pistol, fit your performance requirements and give you a range of prices that will fit your budget. At this point you should be armed with the knowledge to decide how much you should pay for quality.
This process sounds complex but the goal is a simple on - to select a cartridge for your EDC weapon in which you can have absolute confidence. Because should you ever need to fire those rounds in real life, the last thing you want to worry about if it will go ‘bang’ when you pull the trigger.
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